More than twenty years ago I played the Best Game of Warhammer 40K Ever™. This was in 2nd Edition, using the Dark Millennium expansion and its strategy cards. Before turn 1 my opponent played the “Virus Outbreak” card, and my Imperial Guard army was wiped out. I went from a horde of troopers to having three models on the table: two characters who were immune to the virus and the one single soldier who was lucky enough not to catch the disease. My entire army was destroyed during deployment!
Here’s the thing about that game: it was so much fun. No single match of any minis game I’ve played before or since—and there have been many—has given rise to such a great story. Sure, the Best Game of Warhammer 40K Ever™ wasn’t balanced or reasonable. I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now! The tale of the three plucky survivors trying to play without the army they were meant to be a part of is worth more than ten fair games.
I haven’t bought new Games Workshop product in decades. The forthcoming Age of Sigmar edition of Warhammer Fantasy looks to change that, however, because it appears (we haven’t seen the full item just yet) to be all set to create great stories. Where most miniatures games strive for tournament balance, Age of Sigmar has the courage to say “this is a game, it’s meant to be fun, do remarkable stuff and don’t worry about it.”
You see, most minis games are designed around the central principle that any given match should be even. The players have different armies with asymmetric capabilities, but the overall power level is to be the same at the outset. Usually this is accomplished through a “points” system: each model/group of models is worth a certain number of points, and players spend their budget of points to build their armies.
There are two problems with this. First, as a practical matter, points systems are very hard to get right. Jake Thornton, an expert of long standing at point-driven games, has even described points systems as “invariably doomed to failure” because there are innumerable contextual factors they cannot realistically incorporate. He explains that we use points systems because “they are . . . the best tool we currently have for picking reasonably even forces from variable lists,” but “they do not account for everything and . . . the more seriously you take the requirement for balance, the poorer job they do.”
The second issue is that fair is not always synonymous with fun. In focusing on equality of power points systems tend to ignore the question of whether an army is joyless to play with or against. Any minis gamer of even brief experience can cite examples of armies that are moderately effective but highly aggravating.
Age of Sigmar seems, at least based on the information available so far, to be directing its attention away from fairness to emphasize fun and the social nature of miniatures games. Balance will be maintained at least in part through social contracts, or just disregarded entirely in the name of awesome. There is much concern that this will make the game unplayable in a tournament setting, to which I say–
So be it. I have many miniatures games that promise fairness, and achieve it to a greater or lesser extent.
I want to add a game that promises fun to my library. One that promises, and delivers, great stories. If Age of Sigmar is that game, sign me up.